At MFAH Saturday & Sunday

The Ultimate Houston movie? All these years later, Reality Bites still rings true

The Ultimate Houston movie? All these years later, Reality Bites still rings true

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Steve Zahn, from left, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo and Ethan Hawke atop a downtown Houston tower in Reality Bites Courtesy photo
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Ben Stiller made his debut as a director in Reality Bites. WhatIsTrends.com
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Look how young Ben Stiller and Wyona Ryder look.
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Reality Bites movie poster
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News_Reality Bites_Ben Stiller_Wyona Ryder
Events_Reality Bites_Discovery Green_April 10

As the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston prepares a Memorial Day weekend revival of Reality Bites – the enduringly popular 1994 dramedy about inventing your life after college – I can’t help thinking about a wintery day in Park City, Utah, when I talked with the director of what many consider the ultimate H-Town movie.

And of course, since it was a conversation about Houston, we started off talking about the heat.

The snow was softly swirling into thigh-high drifts outside Ben Stiller’s rented condo on that January morning during the ’94 Sundance Film Festival. But the first thing Stiller mentioned as we sat down to chat about his debut effort as a feature film director – which had enjoyed a well-received world premiere the night before at the festival -- was the sweltering experience of a summertime shoot in Space City.

 “'The only real difference today is, economically, people coming out of college trained in a really specific way aren't able to find the jobs that they might have been able to find 10 years ago.”

  ''We were there for, like, 10 days last August,'' Stiller said. ''And, of course, the big thing was the humidity...

“But I liked it,'' he quickly added, as though fearing he might somehow be offending his guest. ''I originally wanted to shoot the whole movie [in Houston]. We couldn't, because of the budget ... But I think being in the place where the movie actually takes place helps you as an actor. And as a filmmaker.”

Stiller was 28 at the time we talked, and still best known in some circles as the son of comic performers Jerry Stiller (then four years away from a career-sparking role on TV’s The King Of Queens) and Anne Meara. But the second-generation entertainer already was making his own mark after making waves with his award-winning comedy shows for MTV and the Fox network. His resume as a film actor included small roles in Next of Kin – with Patrick Swayze! – and Empire of the Sun. One of his first filmmaking efforts, a satirical short titled The Hustler of Money, was aired in 1987 on Saturday Night Live, which employed him as a featured player and apprentice writer during the 1989-90 season.

With Reality Bites, he hoped to establish himself as a double-threat actor-director. On that morning in Park City, however, Stiller admitted that he feared some critics might try to pigeonhole his movie as some sort of trendy trifle made exclusively for, and by, twentysomethings.

 “And I hate that, I really do,'' Stiller said. ''I hope the movie relates to anybody who has gone through the experiences that these characters do. Even if it's one of those things where the parents can look at it, and see what their kids are going through, and see the similarities to what they went through. That can be a really good thing, for them to see that it really isn't that different.

“'The only real difference today is, economically, people coming out of college trained in a really specific way aren't able to find the jobs that they might have been able to find 10 years ago.”

(Gosh, good thing that doesn’t happen anymore, right? OK, back to 1994…)

 “The big challenge for people coming out of school is, how do you deal with that on a personal level? How do you deal with that opportunity not being there? How do you deal with the reality of not making the kind of money you should be making when you come out of school, or deserve to be making after all the work you put in?

“For me, that is what the movie is about. It's like, 'Well, how do I get beyond the cynicism and the bitterness about what we're stuck with now? And how do I make it better? How do I go forward in my life, and feel good about my life, and achieve my goals?' And I think it has to be about finding your own personal center, and your own satisfaction.

 Still fresh and extremely funny, the movie manages a near-perfect balance of unique specifics and universal verities as it looks at four Houston friends who come of age in an era of diminished expectations.

 “There's also a big theme in the movie -- your friends as your family. And I think that's really important now for a lot of people. Because they come from homes where the parents were divorced, where that original family isn't intact, and they can't go to that source. So their friends are the only people who can understand what they're going through, and they become so tight.

“That's one of the answers to the problem of this cold world that we're all dealing with.”

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Based on the first (and, so far, only) produced screenplay by former Houstonian Helen Childress (then 24 and a graduate of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts), Reality Bites is as witty as it is insightful, as sharply satirical as it is gently sympathetic. Still fresh and extremely funny, the movie manages a near-perfect balance of unique specifics and universal verities as it looks at four Houston friends who come of age in an era of diminished expectations (that, truth to tell, doesn’t look all that different from the era we’re living in now).

Troy (Ethan Hawke) is a part-time musician and full-time cynic who can't hold on to any job for very long. Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a promiscuous devotee of '70s pop culture, is moving slowly but surely up the management ranks at a Gap clothing store, largely because she has nothing better to do. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is bit too concerned about his personal problems -- and his mother's response to his coming out of the closet -- to worry much about personal fulfillment through satisfying employment.

Only Lelania (Winona Ryder) is doing anything remotely connected to what she studied in college: She's an underpaid, overworked production assistant for a local morning TV program. And she doesn't get to do that very long after she takes on-the-air revenge on the show's sleazy host (John Mahoney).

When she's not busy looking for another job, Lelania continues to videotape interviews with her friends, hoping to establish her artistic credentials by offering “reality bites” of everyday life. Her efforts attract the professional interest of Michael (Ben Stiller himself), a video-network executive who's also interested in everything else about Lelania.

 Production designer Sharon Seymour wound up re-creating the interior of a Montrose-area apartment back on a Los Angeles soundstage. But the exteriors, Stiller proudly noted, were filmed in Montrose.

 As a director, Stiller finds heart and humor in friendships based on pop-culture quirks (almost every character is a Brady Bunch fanatic) and shared experiences (divorced parents, humiliating job interviews). And he’s very adept at evoking the sexual tension between two people -- in this case, Lelania and Troy -- who are reluctant to complicate their friendship by allowing it to become something more intimate.

Reality Bites adds intriguing twists and textures to characters that might otherwise have been stereotypes, so that Michael isn't just another piece of yuppie scum, and Troy is far from being Lelania's (or anybody else's) Mr. Right. No one is as confident as he or she would like to appear, and the actors — especially Ryder and Garofalo — are most winning when their characters are most insecure.

But perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Reality Bites – and Stiller’s most impressive accomplishment as a filmmaker – is the movie’s ability to evoke so much of Houston with so little actual on-location shooting in H-Town.

Credit Stiller for getting as much of Space City into his film as possible. Indeed, despite the restrictions of an $11.5 million budget, Stiller insisted that screenwriter Childress be allowed to accompany him during a pre-production location-scouting tour of Houston.

Stiller recalled:  ''I said, 'Show me these places where you lived, where your friends lived. Let's see these apartments.' So we just drove around, and she'd say, 'OK, this is it.' And we'd go up and knock on the door, and say, 'We're making this movie, can we take a look around inside?' And when we did, she'd say things like, 'Oh, yeah, this is exactly like it was - the dust bunnies on the floor, the bicycle up on the wall.'''

Production designer Sharon Seymour wound up re-creating the interior of a Montrose-area apartment back on a Los Angeles soundstage. But the exteriors, Stiller proudly noted, were filmed in Montrose.

 ''I wanted to shoot on the street so you could see the skyline, to have it kind of looming there in the background -- kind of like real life looming in their lives, and their having to deal with that.''

Stiller filmed other parts of Reality Bites – including, surprisingly enough, some of the movie's more romantic moments -- in and around the Greenway Plaza complex.

“That architecture can seem very cold, I know,” he said. “But we shot that scene at dusk, to get that kind of blue feeling.

“To me, the whole movie takes place in this realistic, what could be looked at as a mundane type of setting -- everyday life, no matter where it is. So I thought it would be interesting to have a movie that feels somewhat romantic in everyday places.”

Think of it as Stiller’s valentine to Houston. It’s a gift that has kept on giving. And many of us remain thankful for the memories.

Reality Bites will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.